The outgoing traffic on South Broad Street last Friday was the worst in recent memory. Vehicles were on the verge of gridlock, one traffic light blocking the next, and commuters were delayed once again after two trucks collided on I-24. It seems as though it is a daily occurrence and a tractor-trailer weighing 80,000 pounds is quite a gorilla in summertime traffic.
Just hours later “Saturday Night Live” comedian Tracy Morgan was critically injured and a fellow comedian was killed when a sleep-deprived trucker slammed into their car in California. Because the fun-loving Morgan is a celebrity, the nation has learned this week that one-in-seven truck accidents involves “fatigued” operators and we have a growing problem on our highways.
According to a story in USA Today on Wednesday, there was an accident in Illinois over the winter where a toll way worker was killed and a highway patrolman critically injured when a big rig slammed into the back of a parked police cars with its emergency lights on. The driver, it was learned, had been driving 37 ½ hours on three hours of sleep.
In 2003 George Bush gave drivers permission to drive for 11 hours after 10 hours had been the norm for years. In 2009 there were 2,983 fatalities involving over-the-road trucks but by 2012 that number had increased to 3,464. In 2011 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration refused to rescind the extra hour but – as the comedian Morgan struggles to recover – a newfound awareness could make our highways safer.
Not long ago, two large-truck salesmen in the Chattanooga area lamented the constant need for drivers has also increased the risk. “Kids who have no idea what they are doing are receiving a ridiculously small amount of training, are able to get a job anywhere, and then take a rig worth almost $500,000 down the highway at 75 miles per hour. Do you have any idea how long it takes 80,000 pounds of steel to stop!”
It’s true. Pleas for truck drivers dominate the “help wanted” ads and some sources “guarantee” students a seat in a truck cab as soon as they “breathe” the required hours needed for a “for profit” diploma. The lack of oversight is incredible due to the cost/time constraints and a gulping industry. Please, this isn’t to accuse Chattanooga’s largest carriers of any misdoing but they know what is going on in the warped industry better than the law enforcement sector does, this due to heated competition.
Then there is this: the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been trying to institute a new “restart rule” that has been legally challenged. The rule states a driver who has reached his maximum plateau – 70 hours in an eight-day period – must take 34 hours off. The down time must include two periods of 1 a.m. until 5 a.m. (i.e. when people sleep).
A federal appeals court conceded such evidence was “compelling” but, according to the USA Today account, lobbyists for the trucking industry got Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and 20 of her committee members to suspend the new rule for a year! This is how America really works and, in truth, we are en route to set a greater record for fatalities involving large trucks. Statistics prove it is virtually impossible for Senator Collins’ one-year suspension to have any other outcome.
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When 1-24 West is blocked by a truck wreck, outbound traffic has no recourse except to exit into Georgia and Alabama via the South Broad Street corridor. But ancient two-lane railroad bridges, one on the border of St. Elmo and the other squeezing four-lane traffic into two lanes near Wauhatchie Pike, create a nightmare.
I don’t know how you widen a busy railroad bridge without spending a lot of money but Chattanooga sorely needs to correct this official evacuation route. Several years ago a fabulous four-lane bridge was built between two two-lane railroad underpasses in an unexplainable engineering feat. Why would you build a fabulous four-lane bridge that narrows to one-lane traffic on both sides?
Until officials take the necessary steps, smart drivers have learned South Market Street, which extends to Alton Park, is an ideal alternate route when South Broad is congested. Simply resume your route by passing the St. Elmo post office!
But before politicians begin to make promises, remind them Chattanooga has a well-earned reputation for truck-related traffic snarls and that Senator Collins’ one-year delay is almost as stupid as driving a $500,000 truck 70 hours in eight days.